The “No Unicorns” Religion

I really want to write about the New York Times article I just read on the atheist bus movement in London and now around the world.  I’ve been trying to think of something clever to say about it, like using the evidence of their organization around one man, Richard Dawkins (pastor?  prophet?), as proof that there is an Atheist religion.  But the first hit off my Google search for “atheist religion” led me to some British atheist’s blog and his very persuasive argument against the possibility of an atheist religion.  Apparently that would be akin to saying that if I don’t believe in unicorns, I must belong to the “No unicorns” religion.  Touche, Mr. Barnett.  I will forgo all attempts to accuse you of being religious.

I could talk instead about how the advertisements that these atheist groups are running in London self-defeatingly proclaim “There’s probably no god.  Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” rather than saying “There is no god” (emphases mine).  Dawkins, of course, would rather have it say the latter, but – and I’m not sure if I buy this – apparently advertisement regulations prohibit the ads from saying that there absolutely is no god, hence the “probably”.  Here’s something I can pick on.  Why bother selling a product that you can’t promise will work?  Pascal once made an argument for people like that  – commonly called agnostics (or, according to my philosophy professor, cautious atheists) – and its called Pascal’s Wager.  Wikipedia link here.  Pascal makes a reasonable argument for belief in God based on probability, essentially saying that no matter how improbable it is that God exists, it is still more rational to wager that God exists.  I’m sure the theologically-inclined could take issue with some of the suggestions implicit in the Wager, but the point is still made.  Nevertheless, I admire Richard Dawkins and company for standing up for their beliefs and attempting to stick it to the Man.  Or His shadow, anyway, since in their book the Man probably doesn’t exist.  Nor unicorns, for that matter.


10 Responses to “The “No Unicorns” Religion”

  1. 1 Chester Cheetah
    January 9, 2009 at 9:56 pm

    @Victor- I simply extended the unicorn comparison from the original post. Google “pastafarianism”. It is a satirical religion that professes belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster and its purpose is to highlight the kind of thinking that I used in my first post.

    Also, you call God a concept. I presume you are Christian of some sort. The Christian god is personified by definition, not convenience. God is not the Force. The ideas of free will, morality, and rational thought are considered God-like qualities that God gave to humans when he created them in his image. Finally, you or I can create concepts. They are totally immaterial. God may not be observable or material in our traditional use of the word, but belief in a god is not the same as belief in a concept or idea.

  2. January 9, 2009 at 7:21 pm

    Just a question: Doesn’t it take just as much blind faith to believe that there is no God as it does to believe in a God?

    No, it does not.

    And are you saying that belief in God represents ‘blind faith’?

  3. January 9, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    Doesn’t it take just as much blind faith to believe that there is no God as it does to believe in a God?

    Atheists don’t believe a god can’t exist. We just lack a belief in god; a rational decision made based on observation rather than faith. This is a fundamental misunderstanding I see in religious people all the time. It’s about the difference between belief and lack of belief. Does it take just as much faith for me to believe I’m not nepolean as it does to believe I am? Is bald a hair color?

  4. 4 Victor Velcro
    January 9, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    Just a question: Doesn’t it take just as much blind faith to believe that there is no God as it does to believe in a God?

    And when did God and unicorns become comparable? On the one hand we have a human rationalization of why the world is the way it is (God’s existence and His/Her/It’s involvement in the world)… and on the other hand you have a mythological beast. At the least could people compare the belief in God to say… belief that Atlas is holding the world up? I mean, God is more of a concept (the idea that there is some force that makes things happen or influences what happens in the observable world) and not really a beast or a person. We refer to God in terms that we can identify with (i.e. Him, Her, Father, Mother, Creator) but that’s because its hard to acknowledge a concept otherwise.

  5. 5 Chester Cheetah
    January 9, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    The failure of Pascal’s wager is directly identified in augustine’s post. The fundamental flaw is that Pascal presumes that if there is a god, one is better off believing in said god than not. While this is true of every religion I’m aware of, it is not a precondition of any sort of god. Hypothetically, a god can exist which punishes those who believe in it. Obviously, this sort structure does not lend itself well to the idea of religion.

    The definition of knowledge is also fairly ambiguous. Philosophically, the fundamental definition of knowledge is best expressed by Descartes in the statement “Cogito ergo sum.” From this idea and other observations, knowledge can be obtained about other things, but these things cannot be known in the same sense. They are subject to observation, which can be manipulated. You think that you know that you are reading this, but hypothetically, you could be dreaming or hallucinating but your mind would have the exact same input and still be absolutely sure that what you see is real. Of course, it is useless to think this way in the real world. We use the word “know” to establish predictability in observed events. The problem with the idea of a god is that it is defined to be outside this realm of observation. The idea of proving or disproving the existence of god in this matter is ridiculous. It’s approximately equivalent to being told that there is a box and then being told to prove or disprove that there is a red ball in the box. The box represents this sort of alternate space-time in which god is supposed to exist, where empirical observation is deemed impossible. We don’t even know if it is possible for this alternate unobservable world to exist and we have no way to determine the reality because it is by nature unobservable. Even if somehow we did know that this unobservable world existed, we could not ever determine its contents.

    Now on to this debate of atheism versus agnosticism and “there probably isn’t a god” versus “there isn’t a god”. The debate here stems again from our idea of knowledge. No one blinks an eye when someone claims that there are no unicorns, leprechauns, or Flying Spaghetti Monsters. Yet theists are quick to jump on those who claim there is no god. It is theoretically possible to disprove the existence of unicorns if you could account for all observable space (since our understanding of the idea of unicorns implies that they would indeed exist in the observable world, unlike god), but the burden of proof would lie on someone who claimed that there are unicorns. The difference, of course, is that most people don’t believe in unicorns and most people do believe in god, but the justifications for believing in either are quite similar.

    Most of what I’ve said here merely expands on what augustine has already said, but I think this bears importance. As an atheist, I’ve become annoyed with discussions with theists who think they’ve somehow proved me wrong when I admit it’s impossible to disprove god’s existence. I really don’t have a problem with theism as long as theists’ beliefs do not negatively impact my life. I figure it’s a personal choice if you prefer to live your life believing in a god and following the rules that you think it imposes. I simply choose not to do so because I have never in my life been given any reason to believe in leprechauns, unicorns, or gods.

  6. January 9, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    I still find the “probably” problematic. I’m wondering how you would respond to the assertion that theists are certain that there is a god whereas atheists can only suppose. Do you take issue with the theist’s claim to certainty or do you stand behind the the comfort of likelihood that there is no god? Or are the two the same thing?

    I would take issue with the theist’s claim to certainty. There is simply no way anyone can know for for sure that God exists (or does not exist) – if you can prove me wrong, by all means do so, but keep in mind that we’re talking about absolute certainty here.

    I don’t see how Pascal’s Wager is relevant if it’s not rooted in the particular religious tradition of Christianity, though. It’s essentially a risk/reward analysis, which renders it useless unless one is aware of the risks in question. Believing in a vague sort of spirituality or higher power doesn’t really fit into that framework.

    • 7 Marley Vera
      January 9, 2009 at 3:00 pm

      I’ll buy your argument for the Wager’s irrelevance. I still think its an argument worth considering in certain contexts, but I also think you’re right about its need to be rooted in a religious tradition.

      As for the former, theists argue that reason is one form of knowledge based on empirical facts, and faith is an entirely separate form of knowledge. Obviously rationalists would take issue with this, but theists claim that there is knowledge beyond that which humans can access with their reason. This way of knowing is called faith. I cannot provide empirical evidence to you because knowledge by faith is not subject to the rules that govern knowledge by reason.

      Pope John Paul II explains this a lot better than I can. If you haven’t read his encyclical Fides et Ratio, I would encourage you to check out sections 32 – 35 and section 42, which more or less sums up the relationship theists see between faith and reason, concluding with this statement: “Faith asks that its object be understood with the help of reason; and at the summit of its searching reason acknowledges that it cannot do without what faith presents.”

      That’s the best I can do to meet you on a rational level. I can’t prove to you that God exists, but I hope JPII can explain how I know that God exists.

  7. 8 Marley Vera
    January 9, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    I still find the “probably” problematic. I’m wondering how you would respond to the assertion that theists are certain that there is a god whereas atheists can only suppose. Do you take issue with the theist’s claim to certainty or do you stand behind the the comfort of likelihood that there is no god? Or are the two the same thing?

    I understand the problems inherent in the Wager, but that doesn’t mean that its not worth bringing up. For his time Pascal was a brilliant mathematician and thinker and I respect his work. Obviously he wrote with Christianity in mind, but in today’s world where the truths of so many faiths and religions are accessible at the click of a button, I like to think that Pascal argument is for an acknowledgment of a higher power, a simple faith in a being greater than yourself and the search to find the truth of that Being that must accompany such a faith.

    Clearly I’m imposing quite a bit of my own thinking/desires onto Pascal’s original argument; I welcome your comments and criticism!

  8. January 9, 2009 at 6:31 am

    Pascal’s wager is a massive failure. I’m sure it could be modified to be stronger, but the version most people are familiar with just doesn’t work.

    Using ‘probably’ in the ad is both prudent, to avoid having them pulled due to complains, and far more intellectually honest. When Dawkins (or any other atheist who isn’t an idiot) says something like ‘There is no God’, it should generally be assumed that they’re not claiming to know that for certain. That’s difficult to get across on a bus advertisement, though, especially when so many theists already think that atheists claim to be absolutely certain that God does not and could not exist.

  9. January 9, 2009 at 6:03 am

    I prefer it with the word “probably.” We obviously can’t claim there’s no possible way a god could exist — just like we can’t really know anything with such certainty — we’re just saying it’s pretty unlikely, all things considered.

    Also, Pascal’s Wager has been completely refuted over and over again, and it’s frustrating to see it brought up again and again like this. It only makes sense if Christianity and atheism are the only two possible choices. Considering there’s an infinite amount of possible gods, why is it “more rational” to believe that any specific one god from that infinite list exists? What if gnosticism is really true, and we really should be practicing introspection and achieving enlightenment through gnosis? What if the Aztecs were right, and we should all be sacrificing enemy warriors to please our gods? If that’s the case, then you’re no better off than me. These all have a non-zero possibility, and they’re just as unlikely as your god and his heaven and hell. Besides, what if there actually is a god, but he or she is a rational, intelligent god that rewards independent thought rather than blind faith? Given all these possibilities, the Wager breaks down. The problem with Pascal’s Wager lies in its assumptions — namely, that it assumes that christianity is the one true religion, and that all other religions have to be false. Even most christians I know wouldn’t be as arrogant as to say that.

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